Author Archives: larrycuban

About larrycuban

I am a former high school teacher and district superintendent who has researched school reform policies, the history of teaching, and classroom technologies for many years

Coding: The New Vocationalism (Part 3)

What are public schools for?

That is the larger question raised by the “new vocationalism” in the past decade, as vendors, donors, and technology-enthused policymakers have pushed coding and computer science courses into public schools. Through advocacy groups that lobby districts and states to legislate both as requirements and social media campaigns touting high-paying jobs at the end of schooling, the hyperbolic rhetoric of reform with its statistics of how many computer programmer and software engineer jobs will need to be filled in 2020 has pushed the “new vocationalism” as the primary purpose for tax-supported public schools.

Americans have always wanted their schools to pursue more than one purpose. Opinion polls (see here and here)  have regularly shown that both parents and non-parents wanted public schools to do many things:

*insure that students become literate,

*prepare citizens to be engaged citizens,

*developing students moral and ethical character,

*getting children and youth ready  for careers,

*teaching students how to think,

*appreciating cultural diversity.

Those polls (above ones from 1981 and 1996 ) also showed that opinions shifted over time from one goal to another. The key point, however, is that Americans have wanted more than one purpose for tax-supported public schools.

Narrowing schooling’s purposes to preparation for work–as opposed to, say, a civic one or social justice or community uplift–has occurred before in the history of U.S. public schools (see Part 1). Such constricting of purpose confirms anew that schools mirror potent economic and political forces within the larger society.

For nearly four decades, federal and state reform-driven policies of higher curriculum standards, more testing, and rigorous school accountability have dominated U.S. schools. Such policies aimed to make U.S. schools an engine of economic growth essential for the nation to compete in global markets. And with the parallel growth of schools’ access to and use of new technological devices and software, the notion of more, faster, and better teaching and learning directed toward that narrowed purpose of preparing children and youth for college and future work seemed in the grasp of policymakers. Thus, coding and computer science are not curricular fads but logical outgrowths of recent reforms aimed at making the U.S. economically competitive.

But “in the grasp of policymakers” does not easily translate into classroom lessons especially when it comes to top-down policies adding computer science courses to the curriculum and expecting teachers to teach coding. In Part 2, I offered examples of teachers invariably adapting policies aimed at altering their practice. The examples showed the untoward consequences of top-down policies entering (or not entering) classrooms, often leaving a sour taste in the mouths of reformers (for other such instances, see here, here, and here).

For those reform-minded policymakers seeking to replicate a “successful” pilot program (e.g., reading, “new” math, coding) across a broad swath of schools, fidelity to the model, that is, teachers copy faithfully what the “successful” pilot achieved, irritation and disappointment await them.

Why so? The tension between the dynamic process of teachers actively adapting top-down changes to fit their students and fidelity to the model has been (and will continue to be) unresolved resulting in both policymakers and teachers becoming annoyed with one another. You cannot have both fidelity to the model and accept that teachers will tailor the design to fit their classrooms.

Consider the example in the late-1990s of Comprehensive School Reform, a federally funded initiative to get individual schools across the U.S. to adopt “successful” models such as Success for All, America’s Choice, Accelerated Schools, Core Knowledge, and the Coalition of Essential Schools. By 2006, spurred by both the variety of models and federal grants over 8,000 elementary and secondary schools had adopted innovative whole-school reform models from a menu provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

Follow-up studies showed extensive modification of the models as they entered schools and classrooms (except for the reading program Success for All which demanded close adherence to the model–see here).

Here is where the concept of mutual adaptation enters the picture making policy adherence to faithfully replicating the model not only ahistorical but very laughable.

Historically, in the journey from policy to classrooms, teacher palm-prints appear time and again  as practitioners figure out how best to put top-down mandates into practice. As teachers grasp the meaning of a policy and see some virtues for their students, daily lessons do change. The back-and-forth between policy and practice is active, even energetic, as teachers embed parts of the policy into their classroom activities. Forget fidelity to the model.

Thus far, I have cited negative examples of models entering schools and classrooms becoming unrecognizable to their designers, there are a few positive examples, however, of the dynamic process when policies journey into schools and teachers–call them street-level bureaucrats–refashion those policies and in doing so, change how they teach. This has occurred with both top-down and bottom-up policies such as cooperative learning, project-based teaching, and International Baccalaureate schools (see herehere and here).

I end this series of posts with an example that impressed me with its serious involvement of teachers in promoting science projects through technology in Chicago middle schools. Seeing mutual adaptation as both inevitable and worthwhile, a group of Northwestern University researchers created “work circles” of teachers to figure out how to make a newly-adopted unit on ecology and evolution be both meaningful to middle school students and expand the repertoire of teachers using technology. They studied one of these “work circles” made up of four teachers from two schools.

Meeting every other week for five months, the teachers expressed concerns with students using the technology, the science content, and pedagogy. With the researchers they worked on solutions to the concerns they raised. And then taught the unit to their students.

The researchers concluded:
While teachers had initial concerns, some of them serious, they engaged in a concerted effort to create a curriculum to address concerns. Their involvement in the design process led to their deep engagement with both the science content and the pedagogical issues in the software investigation. This is the type of deep engagement with subject matter and pedagogy that can serve as a vehicle for teacher learning and change


I agree. Mutual adaptation can benefit teachers and students. But this is only one
small study of four teachers wrestling with teaching a science unit. It is
nonetheless suggestive of what can occur.


Will similar efforts as these “work circles” involve teachers early on and make the process of mutual adaptation work to benefit both teachers and their students?  I have yet to read of such initiatives as districts and states mandate computer science courses and require young children to learn to code. Repeating the errors of the past and letting mutual adaptation roll out thoughtlessly has been the pattern thus far. The “New Vocationalism,” displaying a narrowed purpose for tax-supported public schools, marches on unimpeded.







Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Coding: The New Vocationalism (Part 2)


As more states and districts require courses in computer science for high school graduation and the teaching of coding in elementary school, they will rediscover what previous generations of school reformers have learned. Moving from adopted policy to alter what and how teachers teach is no cinch. Neither is it–pick your cliche–“a piece of cake,” “a walk in the park,” “shooting fish in a barrel,”” nor “taking candy away from a baby.”

Contrary to the above cliches, policies aimed at changing classroom practice, such as curricular reforms have persistently run into problems that  have plagued ardent reformers. The lessons that have to be learned time and again from earlier generations of school reformers are straightforward.

*Build teacher capabilities in content and skills since both determine to what degree, if any, a policy gets past the classroom door.

*With or without enhanced capabilities and expertise, teachers will adapt policies aimed at altering how and what they teach to the contours of the classrooms in which they teach. If policymakers hate teacher fingerprints over innovations, if they seek fidelity in putting desired reforms into practice, they wish for the impossible.

*Ignoring both of the above lessons ends up with incomplete implementation of desired policies and sorely disappointed school reformers.

Curricular reform of the 1950s and 1960s

Examples of these lessons are legion. Consider the new curricula that reform-inspired academic specialists, funded by the federal government, sought for all U.S. teachers a half-century ago. Aimed at revolutionizing teaching and learning in math, science, and social studies (spurred in part by a popular perception that Soviet education was superior to American schools), millions of dollars went into producing textbooks, developing classroom materials, and training teachers to use inquiry and discovery lessons to engage students in asking questions, solve problems, and use thinking skills. Using the best instructional materials that scholars could produce, teachers taught students how scientists experimented, mathematicians solved math problems and historians used primary sources to understand the past. Published materials ended up in the hands of teachers who, for the most part, had had little time to understand what was demanded by the novel materials or, for that matter, how to use them in lessons.

By the end of the 1970s, education researchers were reporting that instead of student involvement in critical thinking, problem solving, or experiencing how scientists worked, they had found the familiar teacher-centered instruction aimed at imparting knowledge from a text. There was, however, a distinct curricular residue of these federally funded efforts left in the textbooks published in the 1970s. The attempt to revolutionize teaching and learning evolved, in time, into new textbook content (see here and here). Reformers were deeply disappointed in the small returns from major efforts.

The experience of Logo

Another example of reformers ignoring the above lessons was introducing a voluntary program of coding into schools in the 1970s.  Logo illustrates the core dynamic at work in schools and classrooms when policies aimed at changing what and how teachers teach get put into practice.

The brainchild of Seymour Papert (who had worked with Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget) and a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Logo had children using programming language to command a robotic “turtle” on a computer screen. Beginning in the early 1970s, the MIT team sought to teach young children how to construct and solve problems, learn geometric concepts, and bring creativity back into the classroom. The designers saw Logo as a student-centered, progressive innovation that would transform teaching, learning, and the institution of schooling.

Launched in a Brookline (MA) elementary school and with the subsequent publication of Papert’s Mindstorms (1980), Logo and its “turtle” swept across many schools (and homes) here and abroad.


*Photo is of Audrey Watters and brother doing Logo in 1984 (see here)


From Mindstorms, Papert made clear the intent and dream of Logo in schools.



For Logo activists, however, their timing was bad. The idealistic and experimental years in public schools during the mid-1960s to mid-1970s was already ebbing as reformers began piloting Logo in a few elementary schools. In a few years, A “back to basics” reform had seized civic and political leaders and the window for new ventures such as Logo, anchored in the work of Jean Piaget and John Dewey, had closed. Traditional forms of schooling and teaching were back in vogue. Logo became a boutique offering. As always, context matters when it comes to reform.

In the wake of the Nation at Risk report (1983) warning leaders that unless schools became more effective the U.S. would languish economically, teaching young children to program a turtle scuttling across a screen was out of sync with another generation of reform-driven policies.

By the late-1980s, states had raised their graduation standards, created more demanding curriculum frameworks, and began testing regimes. In a few years, traditional age-graded schools adapted to the changing national context in both curriculum and instruction. In the midst of these changes, Papert had come to see schools as places where the “grammar of schooling” was inherently hostile to the ways that students should learn concepts and skills (see here, here, and here).

Times change. Now the climate of rabid acceptance for anything smelling of high-tech, computer science, and new devices has so permeated the culture, learning to code in schools is one whose time has come.  Given the history of new curricula and  Logo and how they were implemented suggest to me that the those backing the current vendor and donor-driven passion for coding and computer science courses in schools need to consider those often ignored lessons I described above and the  concept of “mutual adaptation,” the historical process by which policies get put into practice in U.S. schools. Part 3 of these posts take up mutual adaptation of classroom reforms.



Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

Coding: The New Vocationalism (Part 1)

There is hardly any work we can do or any expenditures we can make that will yield so large a return to our industries as would come from the establishment of educational institutions which would give us skilled hands and trained minds for the conduct of our industries and our commerce. Theodore Search, National Association of Manufacturers, 1898

Coding should be a requirement in every public school…. We have a huge deficit in the skills that we need today versus the skills that are there. Tim Cook, CEO Apple speaking to President Donald Trump at White House, 2017


Goodbye to old vocational education preparing youth for jobs in an industrial economy. Hello to the new vocational education of teaching coding and computer science to all U.S. students

Public schools have experienced two spasms of vocationally-driven reform. One created the  “old vocational education” in the early 20th century endorsed by the National Association of Manufacturers (see above quote) and now the “new vocational education” a century later, endorsed by high-tech CEOs spreading the gospel for teaching children to learn to code and take computer science courses. Then and now, policymakers saw an intimate connection between a strong economy and strong schools. And that is why Theodore Search and Tim Cook could easily have sat down and had a cold beer together.

And were I to join Search and Cook in drinking beers, I would ask each: what is the purpose of having taxpayers with or without children pay to have public schools? Their answer, given the above quotes, would be: prepare children and youth with the knowledge and skills necessary to gain successful entry to the labor force in an ever-changing economy. Fine, I would say, but there have been and continue to be other important purposes driving legislators to tax property and income to fund schools and make attendance compulsory.

Consider these equally as important aims for tax-supported public schools: Schooling children to be proud, fully-rounded citizens who give back to their communities. Reinforcing community values and strengthening individual character. Helping students fulfill their individual potential (see here, here, and here).

Preparation for the workplace is not the only goal for public schooling. Yet that has been the primary purpose for most reformers over the past three decades. And a century ago, reformers had also elevated workplace preparation to be the overarching purpose for tax-supported public schools.

Beginning in 1917, the federal government appropriated monies for states to spend on vocational training for industrial and commercial jobs. This support made the NAM version of vocational education dominant in public schools for three-quarters of a century. Since the 1980s, however, vocational education has largely disappeared as a formal choice in the curriculum. Career and technical academies and scattered high school courses do pinch-hit and offer some choice to those students uneager to spend four additional years sitting in college classrooms (see here and here).

With the morphing of the “old” vocational education into career and technical education, a shiny new vocationalism is being highly touted for all U.S. students. Yes, I refer to the shrill cries for more computer science in the curriculum and the teaching of coding to children and youth (see here and here).

You do not need a Ph.D. to figure out that the past thirty-plus years (I use A Nation at Risk report in 1983 as a benchmark) have forged strong links between the economy and public schooling. The primary purpose for K-12 schools in recent decades has been crisply defined as preparing each child for college and career. Completing college, of course, is basically geared to getting decent paying jobs. So becoming college-ready means that higher education is really a vocational school and a ticket to a decent paying job. Advocates for coding and requiring computer science as a subject seek to expand the K-12 curriculum (or replace other content and skills) by adding a C to the three Rs.*

Today, high tech entrepreneurs and CEOs lament the need to outsource coding to other countries and import software engineers from India and elsewhere (but do it nonetheless on special visas) pointing to the lack of U.S. graduates skilled in programming, systems analysis, and computer support. The growth rate in such jobs will continue to escalate by 2020. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that computer and information technology jobs will grow by a half-million from 3.9 million in 2016 to 4.4 million in 2020.

Keep in mind, however, that the U.S. economy now employs nearly 164 million workers. Those technical jobs in 2020 would represent less than three percent of the overall workforce. Far larger growth in jobs will occur, according to recent estimates, in health care and social assistance (almost six million), professional and business services (nearly four million), and construction (nearly two million) far surpassing computer and information technology (half-million).

Coding for all U.S. students to prepare for jobs that represents less than three percent of the workforce?

The strong smell of Silicon Valley self-interest accompanies these proposals to improve schooling. Behind and other advocacy groups are the thick wallets of donors and technology companies carrying iconic names. In pushing state and local education officials to require computer science for high school graduation, classify the subject as a fourth “science” in the secondary curriculum, substitute for a foreign language requirement, and have five year-olds learn to code wafts the scent of companies seeking graduates who can enter the computer and information workforce, a minute fraction of the entire U.S. workforce (see here).

Backers of coding are a Who’s Who of Silicon Valley firms and donors who see the necessity of coding and computer science being part of the required curriculum in U.S. schools as it has in over 15 European nations and Israel (see here and here). The United Kingdom, for example, tossed out its previous curriculum on ICT and introduced computer science and coding in 2012 (see here,here,and here). As in the U.S., the rationale for such reforms go beyond the smell of vested interest insofar as hiring skilled software developers and programmers. Recently, the reasons for such changes have broadened. As one advocate put it: “Learning how to code allows kids to do their own thing, be creative and secure a job in an area where there will be a huge shortage.”

The champions of coding and the subject of computer science in the U.S. have already succeeded in lobbying policymakers to insert coding and computer science into state curriculum standards and graduation requirements (see here and here).

Like a century ago, the “new” vocationalism with its emphasis on skills for an information-driven society has become the primary purpose for tax-supported schooling.

The picture I have sketched out of growing support for a “new” vocational education is well documented, but when it comes to classroom implementation, old, familiar difficulties come to the surface raising questions about the reform taking hold. I take up the historic issue of putting curricular reforms into practice in Part 2.



*The national commission that produced the 1983 Nation at Risk report recommended that a half-year of computer science be a requirement for high school graduation.





Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

School Reform: Foolish Fads or Impossible Dream?

“It is easier to put a man on the moon than to reform public schools.” Jerrold Zachiarias, 1966*

“Changing schools is like moving a graveyard.” Hyman Rickover, 1983**

“The history of American education is a chronicle of fads.” W.W. Charters, 1922***

“In the four decades between when I started teaching English at T.C. [Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia] in 1970 and my retirement this year, I saw countless reforms come and go; some even returned years later disguised in new education lingo.” Patrick Welsh, 2013****


These four quotes capture the clash of perspectives among ardent school reformers over the past century. Are schools rigid, unbending, self-protecting bureaucracies that seldom make deep and lasting change in governance, curriculum, and classroom practice? Or are schools faddish-driven institutions rushing to keep up with the most recent cure for whatever ails schools?

Sure, it sounds like a false either/or choice fitting the crisis-tinged rhetoric driving each wave of reform yet the historical facts are clear that all fads don’t take hold in classrooms and most schools do change in important ways. Those who indulge in the rhetoric of  reform relish dichotomies because they fit their  either-this-or-that world.  The notion of a spectrum where differences are arrayed along a continuum with a middle ground is anathema to those reformers who traffic in Chicken Little exclamations of the sky is falling.

The “chronicle of fads” crowd, mostly practitioners, point to the history of reform-after-reform and how few stick. Veteran teachers like Patrick Welsh have said repeatedly over decades that they have endured the onslaught of externally imposed “solutions” to “problems” that top officials, not teachers, had identified. Change? Schools do too much of it, this crowd says.


The “schools-never-change” crowd, mostly policy entrepreneurs, donors, and reformers whose experience in K-12 schools ended when they graduated high school, are convinced that most schools are rigid places horribly out of step with a 21st century economy and society so different from the time when public schools were structured to fit an industrial-based economy and society. You want “real” change, they say, don’t expect existing school officials to turn the Titanic to avoid the iceberg. what’s needed? Out with the old, in with the new.


When posed as a dichotomy–what high-pitched reform rhetoric depends upon– choice is restricted to either one or the other view. Whether a dichotomy or a continuum, the fundamental issue turns on reformers’ assumptions about public schools’ capacity to adapt to changing conditions and the speed in which they enact those changes. These contrasting beliefs, I argue, fuel current debates over the menu of contemporary reforms ranging from charter schools to competency-based education to  “personalized instruction.”

To make sense of these contradictory beliefs about school change a few distinctions about the realities of schooling need to be made. First,  there is the landscape of U.S. schooling. Second, in a decentralized system of education, schools are dependent upon local voters and parents for money and political support, and, lastly, the difficult job of converting policies into practice.

Landscape of U.S. schooling. The capacity of schools to change depends upon zip codes. In middle- and upper-middle class districts where parents and taxpayers nudge elected school boards to respond to their concerns and wishes, districts adopt new programs, expand  student services, and keep patrons’ view front-and-center (see here and here). The district’s agility to alter what is and move toward what ought to be is seldom questioned. Changes–often called “improvements” rather than “reforms” are evident. The “schools-never-change” crowd seldom point to these districts.

But in large low-income, largely minority districts where low academic achievement and dropout rates dominate debates over what to do, reform churn in adopting one new program after another is normal yet few have any staying power beyond the tenure of the superintendent (see here, here, and here).

So if the evidence is there that districts in different zipcodes do indeed change albeit with very different results, why do these wannabe reformers spout such contradictory views of the capacity of the schools to change? They forget a basic fact of U.S. schooling.

Schools are political institutions that respond to their voters and parents. The statement is most obvious in suburbs and exurbs where citizen participation in schools runs far higher and is more intense than in large, urban districts. After all, school districts are wholly dependent on taxpayers, voters, and parents for funding, support, and legitimacy. Without all of these, district policies flounder and fail. So in many of suburban and exurban districts, school boards and administrators respond often to their citizens, adopt new programs, and help teachers implement new ideas. Such places  make changes in governance, curriculum, and daily operations. Change often bubbles up from the bottom and middle of the organization, not spouting always from the top.

Not so in large urban districts where school boards and large bureaucracies are distant from their patrons. In those big cities where mayors control the schools (Washington, D.C., New York City, etc.) citizen participation approaches nil. Elected boards in big cities give token representation to parents on advisory and ad hoc committees but taxpayers and voters have little leverage on what school boards enact, what superintendents do, and what happens in the local school. Nearly always, change comes from the top and moves downward to schools.

Because school districts are political entities, changes do occur but they vary considerably from big cities to suburban districts.

And this is where the third distinction becomes necessary. The schools-never-change crowd overlook where reforms get adopted and adapted in occasional big cities, suburbs, exurbs and see so many of their ideas and changes that they want in classrooms do not get put into practice as intended.

Reforms get implemented poorly. So often, policymakers bewail how their favorite reforms got mangled as they were put into practice. They blame superintendents, principals, and teachers for fouling up a beautiful way to improve schools (see here, here, and here, ).

Consider access and use of new technologies in classrooms. Tech magnates and well-endowed donors carp at urban and suburban schools not doing more with the devices and software they have in raising academic achievement and reducing the test score gap between minorities and whites; other critics point to unintended outcomes of using devices in lessons (see here, here, and here).

But changes do occur. New devices show up, professional development for teachers happens, many teachers integrate technologies into their lessons. But often these changes are neither enough or what reformers sought. The technologies were put into practice but not in the ways that reformers wanted.

In noting the landscape of schooling by zipcode, the political nature of schooling, and dissatisfaction with how reforms get implemented it becomes clear that nearly all schools do have the capacity to change and, in fact, have to change to meet political demands of patrons. And they do make changes albeit at varying speeds. Those changes, however, may not satisfy those who champion them and those expected to put them into practice.

The quotes that introduced this post about the capacity of schools to change and the speed in which they put them into practice mirror much current thinking among reformers and those charged to put changes into practice. The pumped up rhetoric of the “chronicle of fads” and “schools-never-change” crowds will continue to fuel much of the debate over school improvement. That many districts and schools do change will hardly alter that rhetoric but for serious reformers who are in the game for five to ten years, these distinctions about change may help to concentrate where they focus and what they do.


*Quoted in Charles Silberman, Crisis in the Classroom (New York: Random House, 1971(, p. 171.

**Hyman Rickover, “Statement to Virginia State Board of Education,” July28, 1983.

***W.W. Charters, “Regulating the Project,” Journal of Educational Research, 1922, p. 245.

****Patrick Welsh, “Four Decades of Failed Reform,” Washington Post, September 27, 2013.



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Reform Lessons from Skeptical But Not Cynical Veterans

Eleven years ago, Jane David and I  wrote “Cutting Through the Hype: A Taxpayer’s Guide to School Reforms.” A short book inventorying 20 popular reforms (many are still around now), sliced away the “truthful hyperbole” and parsed them in ways that teachers, administrators, policymakers, and academics could easily understand. Still in print with Harvard Education Press, I looked at the final chapter summing up what we learned from our brief journey through the school reform world and found the advice we offered then relevant to the current generation of over-caffeinated entrepreneurial policymakers, donors, and ardent practitioners pushing their visions of better schooling.  Here are the lessons we had learned about school reforms circa 2006.

Don’t swallow the hype. If a reform sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Programs peddled as miracle cures nearly always fail to deliver desired results, and therefore disappoint. Disappointment, in turn, breeds cynicism and helplessness. Policymakers and advocates need to shrink their their overpromising on what reforms can deliver and lower the volume of attacks on what is wrong with our public schools. At the same time,educators and citizens need to be skeptical of the hype and press for more truth in advertising to support reform claims and the conditions essential for success.

Kick the tires. Do the logic and assumptions of the reform hold up? Reforms aim to increase student achievement, yet most are targeted at a point many steps removed from the classroom. Reconfiguring grade levels, ending social promotion, and merit pay, for example, are all promoted as ways to improve teaching and learning, but the path from each to better teaching and higher test scores is far from clear. Policymakers and reform advocates should provide solid arguments and evidence linking their proposals to promised outcomes.

It’s the implementation, stupid. Policymakers neither administer schools nor teach students; they make policy for both from afar. Whether the policy is a new program or a new way of operating, the ideas are only as good as those who put them into practice. In fact, how well a program is implemented can matter more than what the program is. A famous evaluation, called the “Follow Through Planned Variation” experiment tested a number of  different early elementary programs by getting several schools across the country to try each one. One of the key findings, too often ignored today, was that the differences in results from one school to the next using the same program were bigger than the differences in results between the programs being compared.

Certainly, some programs  are better or worse than others. Yet even in better programs, the specifics are even less important than what teachers do daily to put activities into practice. At one extreme, teachers can ignore a program, which they may do if it does not make sense to them. At the other extreme, teachers can be excited enough by a program to put extra energy and resources into tailoring it to fit their students. Investments in professional development designed to meet teachers’ needs can increase the likelihood that they will give a program a good try.

Policymakers can acknowledge these lessons from the past and turn to educators to identify what is needed for the reform to work. The result should be policies that provide an appropriate mix of incentives, guidance, and help that leaves room for differences from one place to the next and among teachers.

Reject extremes. Education reform has long been characterized as a pendulum incapable of stopping in the middle. For decades, debates over teaching reading (phonics vs. whole language). math (computation vs. concepts), and writing (grammar vs. content) have polarized policymakers, practitioners, and parents. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that these “wars” are fought largely with words in speeches, articles, and at conferences, not in actual classroom practices.

More often than not, research shows, teachers reject extremist positions and find the best solution to be a balance between polar opposites.

Extreme positions are also staked out around “scripted curriculum” and “teacher-invented curriculum.” At one extreme,advocates assume that teachers are unable to exercise any judgment, and therefore need textbooks that specify word for word what they should say to their students. At the other extreme, teachers are viewed as creative inventors, who can design their own curriculum with minimal tools and materials. Most educators reject both extremes, yet they find little support for the middle ground from textbook publishers and district leaders.

Policies that insist on extreme positions invite resistance. To increase the likelihood that programs will lead to desired results, policymakers and the public must seek a middle ground. One such option is to provide choices in reading programs, for example, or provide flexibility to educators for adapting approaches to their circumstances.

Deja vu all over again. Time and again, policies that promote curricular change or rely on tests to determine students’ futures have been tried, yet few policymakers ever looked in the rearview mirror for help in shaping policies. Only with evidence about why policies did or did not work out as intended will reformers be spared predictable failures. evaluations of earlier reforms don’t provide ready answers to today’s questions, but they do provide considerable guidance on what it takes to increase a reform’s likelihood of success. Policymakers and citizens can ask more questions about what happened when similar reforms were tried in the past.

Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Policies can at best be only hunches about what will work in schools, and even the best guesses, grounded in all available evidence, are no guarantee of success. Policymakers and citizens need to keep an eye on what happens to reforms,and an ear out for the reactions of teachers and students. Negative reactions and problems are not necessarily signs that a reform should be abandoned, but they likely point to needed adjustments. Figuring out the right adjustments may require more systematic information gathering. Neither abandoning a reform prematurely nor steadfastedly sticking with something that isn’t working even if it is politically popular will contribute to improving schools.

Treating reforms policies as ideas to be improved upon–or rejected–is a sensible (and morally responsible) way of dealing with policies that have important consequences for both adults and children.

Ready or not. Policymakers are typically too far removed from the classroom to fully appreciate what teachers and principals need to have in place to make reforms work. In the absence of discussions with teachers and principals during their creation, school reform policies are likely to ignore the minimal conditions and resources needed for a reform to have a chance of success. Many reforms assume, for example, that practitioners have what they need to do a better job, including not only the know-how but also the necessary materials. In fact, the conditions present in the poorest and lowest-performing schools are often the opposite of what is needed for improvement. Without dealing directly with issues of distrust and racism, as well as poor training, among other problems, efforts to change instruction will fall flat.

Citizens must call attention to the real conditions for teaching and learning in the schools and ensure that policymakers hear directly from educators.

An ounce of prevention. Waiting until students reach kindergarten to beginto “close the achievement gap” makes both the challenge and the costs extraordinary. For school reforms to succeed, measures directed at closing gaps in learning at a much earlier age are essential. Prenatal care is the starting point for many later learning problems.

It is indisputable that gaps in achievement are closely related to income–poor children start school significantly behind their more affluent peers. Attention to gaps, most of which can be traced to poverty, means attention to known problems before children reach school age.

High dropout rates for poor and minority students exact huge costs on society. Those who drop out are far more likely to end up unemployed and in jail, both of which cost society considerably more than public schooling. If the goals of school reform are to be realized it’s going to mean reaching beyond the bounds of school reform policies.


None of these guidelines will be seen as groundbreaking for anyone who follows school reform. Yet together they raise a set of questions worth asking of any reform to help its journey from policy to practice.

Reformers and policymakers of all stripes must try to understand what motivates and helps teachers and students do more,and what does not. This is especially true for efforts targeting the nation’s most challenging schools. If those who champion good ideas keep their eyes on the classroom, they can keep school reforms on track.





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Dilemmas in Scaling Up “Successful” Reforms (Part 2)

For decades, under the influence of efficiency-minded policymakers the “wisdom” of reform has been as follows:

To solve serious school problems policymakers and philanthropists take “good” ideas, find the right people to implement them faithfully on a small scale (e.g., pilots, “demonstration” projects), and then, using positive results from independent research and evaluation, spread the results across a larger playing field to reach the most students. Rational and scientific, that is how reform should be done.

That policy “wisdom” on how best to “scale up” reforms has dominated reform for the past half-century. Often called research and development (“R & D”), the results, however, have been often  disappointing, and occasionally disastrous.  Unanticipated issues arose. Flaws in the original design went unaddressed. Faulty implementation occurred.  Teachers and principals tailored the design of the innovation to their settings. Unexpected consequences popped up. Insufficient resources were allocated. Educators lacked capabilities. The list of reasons documenting the failure of scaling up innovations from pilots to entire districts or states speak to the documented limits of R&D (see here and here).

I could easily cite instances between the 1950s through the 1980s (e.g., math and science “new” curricula, the self-esteem movement, school site decision-making, Effective Schools, outcome-based schooling) but won’t elaborate. These failures to alter districts, schools, and classrooms substantially and for extended periods of time have been well documented. This conventional wisdom of starting small and then scaling up reforms to larger populations–has anyone tried to scale up Socrates’ success with students?– continue as the dominant way of thinking about school reform in the face of disappointing evidence and outright failure.

The core dilemma that policymakers and donors face in “scaling up” is whether they are seeking faithful replication of the innovation–fidelity to the model–that seemingly worked in a one or handful of schools (e.g., the reading program Success for All) or do they want schools to adapt the innovation to their settings  as they tailor it to their context (e.g., Comprehensive School Reform models)–called “mutual adaptation.” In both instances the depth of the implementation (district to school to classroom teachers’ beliefs and practices) and who owns the innovation during and after it is put into practice (school board, administrators, teachers) are central issues that few policymakers or foundation officials have seriously considered.

There are, however, (and have been) other ways of looking at innovations and school reform. Consider a way-of-seeing anchored in the complexity of classroom teaching within age-graded schools, and decentralized local districts where teaching depends upon high degrees of interaction between and among staff, parents, and community to cope with inexorable political changes that occur inside and outside the district and school. Such a way of conceptualizing reform recognizes that people who work in these complex, interactive political institutions don’t scale up reforms easily or quickly because contexts differ, resources dry up, determined people work hard and create success but, over time, get fatigued and leave. Even the very best results cannot be sustained without further changes in what worked initially.  Thus, the best-planned solutions, flawlessly implemented by educators with requisite expertise, enjoying solid political support, teacher buy-in, and sufficient resources at work in one or a few schools–may only last a short time (five years or longer) and eventually wither away. Occasionally, exceptions do occur and can last many years. Examples range from Individually Guided Education (for exception, see here), Coalition of Essential Schools (for exception, see here), Paedeia (for exception, see here)

I call these  “happy but short-lived” reforms. Why?

Such efforts come in with a splash, do well for limited numbers of students and teachers for a few years and then, in time, for various reasons, falter and expire. The short time they were in full bloom were “happy” for those touched by the innovation; such reforms excited great hopes that they could be scaled up to benefit more students and teachers. But scaling up was then (and now) seen as a technical task that capable managers could easily replicate to do good elsewhere. Reproducing a complex  innovation anchored in thousands of human interactions in a sea of uncertainty is neither technical or easily reproduced in a highly political and uncertain environment. Such in-vitro-fertilization is too often beyond the ken of current educational policymakers and scientists. So these “happy” reforms expired. They were “short-lived” but left a residue of hope that like-minded smart people coming together and working hard could again create a program and culture of learning that would help students and teachers. Thus, “happy but short-lived” innovations and reform are worthy and should be encouraged without high hopes of being scaled up.

Another perspective beyond traditional R & D and “happy but short-lived” innovations is continuous improvement. There are scattered districts, charter management organizations, and schools that have learned how to retain focus on what they do daily while diagnosing and solving problems again and again to sustain a culture of improvement, stable leadership, and adherence to their founding principles. All of this done while adapting, sometimes smoothly, sometimes hastily to the political, economic, and social changes that inevitably appear. Such districts, CMOs, and individual schools change over time as they stick to their founding principles.

For district examples of continuous improvement, look at Union City, New Jersey as captured in David Kirp’s Improbable Scholars. Or Long Beach, California, (see here). For charter management organizations, look at Aspire founded in 1999 and now has 35 schools in California and three in Tennessee and KIPP (1994) with 183 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia. For individual schools, see  H-B Woodlawn School in Arlington, Virginia (1972) and the Urban Academy in New York City (1986).

And there is even another perspective that gets around the dominant R & D model of “scaling up.” Exporting successful pieces of a reform design to schools willing to adapt a part of the innovation to their setting is returning to fashion. Even though the first generation of diffusion-of-innovation literature left a sour taste in the mouths of eager reformers anxious to “scale up” their pet reforms (see here and here), current innovators, backed by donors’ thick wallets, invite districts to take a part of the innovation and adapt it to their schools.

Think of Summit charter schools exporting their Personalized Learning Platform to over a hundred schools since 2015 through summer “base camps” for districts where teachers learn about “personalized learning” and adapt it to their setting (see here and here).

Here, then, are four very different ways of examining the concept of “scaling up” innovations over time in highly complex, political, and uncertain environments that depend upon much social and individual interaction for success. Because there is a core dilemma involving consequential choices at the heart of “scaling up” no sure-fire recipes for how-to-do-it exists. Too many decision-makers using one or more of the above perspectives have ignored the inherent dilemma and piled up outright failures.

Nonetheless, even after a well-documented history of failed attempts and cautions triggered by failures, “scaling up” a prized innovation remains the dominant policy goal for private philanthropy and public policymakers in spreading innovation.



Filed under school reform policies

Scaling Up “Successful” Reforms (Part 1)

Recently a journalist contacted me to discuss the closure of a Carpe Diem school in Indianapolis after five years and the jeopardy of the charter network’s expansion from its original Yuma (AZ) location (see here and here; YouTube marketing video here).

We talked about the historic difficulties of “scaling up” innovations in public schools. I offered some examples of how hard it is to take a “successful” innovation and grow it quickly elsewhere in the name of efficiency (economies of scale) and effectiveness (to help more children and youth). In many instances, pressure to “scale up” from pilot projects to networks of schools seeded in different locations came from ambitious school officials, impatient donors, and entrepreneurial investors. Too often they overlooked the common teacher practice of adapting an innovation to the specific setting, a practice that is as old as teaching itself. Classroom adaptations, of course, alter the innovation.

After we got off the phone I recalled other innovations over the past 60 years that tried to “scale up” from pilot projects. Many stumbled in their expansion, especially those aimed at altering how teachers traditionally teach, for  reasons that contemporary reformers might heed before thinking big.

One that came to mind was the Higher Horizons Project in New York City between the late-1950s through the mid-1960s.

A 1964 report summarized the program’s origin in a pilot junior high school and then its rapid expansion to scores of other city schools.

Higher Horizons originated as a program to uncover latent ability among culturally deprived children and to provide the gifted children with remedial instruction and “enrichment” experiences, such as trips to art galleries, concerts, and the theater. The ultimate object was to lift the aspirations of gifted youngsters from the slums by encouraging them to believe in their ability to advance their station in life through education. Success of the experiment is indicated by the fact that a relatively large percentage of the participating pupils have completed high school and gone on to college.

The program has now been opened to any child who can benefit from it, whether or not he has more than average ability. Each school is free to choose any part of Higher Horizons that fits the particular needs of its students. In general, the program provides extra teachers or “curriculum assistants,” remedial classes (especially in arithmetic and reading), activities that draw parents into closer relationships with the schools, and field trips and other excursions for cultural enrichment.

In “scaling up” New York City school officials extended the mission of the program to nearly all students responding, in part, politically to the growing civil rights movement in the city protesting segregated schools and funding inequities.  In broadening the program to many more schools and permitting schools to pick and choose pieces of the innovation, district officials spent little time or attention upon school-site implementation or how teachers taught. Moreover, they provided less money and staffing to newly-labeled Higher Horizon schools than in the pilot junior high school. Subsequent evaluations of the scaled-up program showed little to no gains in academic achievement or school improvement (see here and here).

What New York City officials did in the 1960s to “scale up” a promising demonstration program and spread it to many other schools to increase both teacher and school efficiency and effectiveness has occurred many times over the past half-century and continues to exist in 2017.

Consider, for example, Rocketship charter schools, a network that began in 2005 in one K-5 San Jose elementary school enrolling mostly poor Latino students. Co-founder John Danner, who had made his wealth in selling a Silicon Valley start up, became a middle school teacher and then afterwards established a cluster of schools, using mostly Teach for America newcomers. The idea was to alter dramatically how elementary schools are structured and, at the same time, use online lessons in reading and math. The school divided children’s time between a large chunk of time sitting in cubicles–the “Learning Lab”–doing online lessons supervised by teacher aides and another chunk of the school day in classrooms with teachers doing regular lessons (see here  and here,). In accepting the prestigious McNulty Prize in 2010, Danner said:

Today, we have three flourishing schools in San Jose, California; in just five years, we intend to increase that number to 30 schools, and in 10 years, we will have built out a national network of hundreds of successful schools.

Danner left Rocketship in 2013 when there were seven schools in the San Jose area, a school in Milwaukee, and plans for a school in Nashville. By that time, Rocketship had secured approval to open 30 schools in Santa Clara County in five years.

In 2017, however, there are 14 Rocketship schools in the Bay Area, Milwaukee, and Nashville including one that opened last year in Washington, D.C.

Going to the scale that the co-founders of the charter network sought has been an arduous process marked by program shifts, slow growth, and the inevitable stumbles that accompany expansion of programs aiming to alter school structure and traditional teaching.

Which brings me back to the journalist’s question about the Carpe Diem charter that closed in Indianapolis. Part 2 of this post analyzes why “scaling up” is so hard to do.

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Filed under leadership, school reform policies